Travel: a blessing and a curse

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling recently. In my time in transit to and from the airport, waiting for flights, riding out cancellations, and actually taking the flights, I’ve had ample opportunities to reflect on the positives and negatives of travel.

Tallying up all of my trips over the past six months, I’ve had 48 days of work-related travel, including the travel time. This works out to 15 days of conference related travel, 5 days of invited seminar travel, 11 days of working group travel, and 17 days of field work travel.  I also fit in 17 days of personal travel over the past 6 months.  Looking back, that’s a lot of travel.

For me, for right now, it’s simply too much.

Work travel comes with a ton of benefits.  I get to reconnect with friends who now live around the world, I get to see new cities and countries, and experience different cultures.  I am usually happy and intellectually stimulated while at my destination.  I love talking about science, meeting new people doing cool work, and thinking up new ideas and projects.

But, there are some major downsides.  It seems glamorous to travel to different cities around the country and world, but in reality I often only see the area around my hotel, the area around the meeting venue, and the views on my walk in between the two.  Travel also disrupts my normal workflow.  While I am still technically working while traveling, can work quite productively on the plane rides, and can usually stay reasonably up-to-date with emails, traveling means time away from my “normal” workload- interacting with students and colleagues, lab meetings, writing, lecture prep, etc.  Furthermore, I always need some time to recover, but often work travel occurs over weekends so I don’t actually get much down time, which means I’m grumpier and less productive once I’m home.  And on the personal front, work travel constitutes a financial burden- both in terms of floating money on my credit cards to be reimbursed later, as well as in arranging for the care of dependents left at home (in my case, my pets).  I don’t exercise as regularly as normal and I often eat crappy food while en route.  Work travel also means time away from friends and family, and I have less desire or time for personal travel.

So I am reevaluating my travel schedule and trying to recalibrate in order to achieve the right balance of travel.  But I’m not exactly sure what that balance should be.  I’ve started to think about the opportunity costs versus rewards for each type of travel and am trying to set guidelines for deciding between opportunities.

My preliminary thoughts on the different types of travel:

  • Conference travel (Good in limited amounts)
  • Invited seminars at universities (Again, good in limited amounts)
  • Working groups (Are these a good use of my time?  Maybe, maybe not)
  • Field work/research team meetings (Necessary, and something I usually enjoy)
  • Service (e.g., NSF panels) (Good in limited amounts)
  • Personal (Necessary, and also something I enjoy)

I’ve read with intense interest different strategies for balancing travel.  Dr. Radhika Nagpal (the 7 year postdoc) limits herself to a set number of trips (5) per year. Dr. Meghan Duffy’s post from last year, plus the comments, are a wealth of information about the travel habits of ecologists.  My own framework is still a work in progress and I don’t have any clear strategies.  I definitely need to cut back on the number of conferences I attend per year and possibly also my working group commitments.  I don’t want to cut back on my personal or field work travel, and my service travel will ramp up starting this year, as well as field work. So some questions I’m asking myself now are: How many trips per year should I be taking? And more importantly, what is the right kind of travel to be doing, especially for a newbie professor?

So, dear readers, I’ll put these questions to you.  Do you have any hard and fast rules about travel?  How do you make decisions about which types of travel are worth it to you, and which types you could do without?


21 thoughts on “Travel: a blessing and a curse

  1. I just spent 6 weeks traveling for field work in Uruguay over the semester break so I feel the lack of any down or recovery time. I tend to try to limit travel to once a month and on days/times where I can buffer any delays or problems with getting back. I also have been much less willing to travel at ridiculously early times that cut into my sleep routine. It helps that I have the financial resources to do so but I would rather pay the $30 more for the 9 am flight than than take the 6 am one. With every work trip, I really try to couple it with fun/visiting friends, etc… Get a good credit card that gives you miles/points.

    • Thanks, Romi. I agree about all of your points. I realized I had achieved a not insignificant level of financial stability when I was able to “wing it” in my trip planning, even if that meant that I paid more for last-minute things. I could never do that as a grad student! I also just invested in a United-branded credit card, since that is the airline I end up using the most.

  2. I also limit my travel. I tend to prioritize invited speaking gigs over conferences, unless there’s something specific I can get from the conferences (talks I really need to attend; presentations my students can give, networking with specific people I know will be there, etc.) And even when I do go to a conference, I try to keep my stay down to 2 or 3 nights, even though many conferences could run for 4 or 5 nights. It’s just too expensive to travel as frequently as I did several years ago, and I wasn’t getting enough bang for my buck for what I was putting into it. Plus I’ve had child care issues as a single mom,so that raises the difficulty level of all travel.

    As a newbie prof, I’d recommend to find what professional travel will really benefit you (have you really enjoyed the conferences you’ve been attending? Any new collaborations come from them? Meeting the right people there? etc.) and keep what’s helping you and ditch the rest for now. Your job is to raise your own visibility in the field, so invited talks are usually more beneficial for that as far as use of travel (especially if those doing the inviting pay all your travel costs), and study panels also help you out both by seeing how grant review works and also networking with peers and funders. Conferences i see (in general) as the low item on the totem pole, so there has to be a good reason for me to attend those if travel needs to be minimized.

    • I agree, conferences are becoming lower on my priority list, and I will probably spend less time on them. I’ve been thinking a lot about what conferences are useful- my list of conferences attended greatly expanded during my postdoc, and so now I’m trying to figure out which group I want to maintain a presence in, which conference is best for my students to attend, etc.

  3. I enjoy traveling, but when it comes to traveling I make sure I prioritize. I like to have a balance of personal and professional traveling. Also, I make sure that I try something that the place is known for and make it a fun experience.

    • I just had the experience while teaching today of one of my students referencing a really geologically cool place…and I had this huge, internal sigh because I had just traveled to within two hours of that place, but didn’t make the time to go see it because I was stressed out about travel and time away, and felt I needed to get home to start preparing for my lectures! If I had actually visited the place, I could have included some of those pictures in my lecture (besides actually getting to spend time there!). Oh well….it was a good lesson in missed opportunities.

  4. This is definitely a challenge for me. I work in an interdisciplinary area so I can’t just again a single conference and know what’s going on in the field/be known to the right people (my promotion dossier is in the pipeline somewhere now). I also do fieldwork in a place that doesn’t allow children and has limited communication. I have a young son so I’ve been trying to limit my travel but find that I still end up making 8 trips/year (or more). There are several non-optional trips (grant program meetings/reviews) per year, 1-2 conferences per year (and that’s limiting them severely), fieldwork (typically 2-3/year now that I’ve cut back), and then there are always things that come up that you can’t foresee but you can’t say no to (a call from NAS asking you to give a talk, a seminar invite at your undergrad institution). I think I’ve just realized that saying 8/year is a delusion. It probably is more like 12 in a given year – and that’s with saying no a lot. I’m curious to hear how other people manage this – I could use some advice. I will say that I prioritize conferences over invited seminars. The invited seminars are fun but I don’t find them as productive as a meeting, especially one where I’m giving an invited talk, a talk to a large audience, or organizing a session.

    • Interesting…I like hearing your perspective on conferences vs. invited seminars. I would think the conf vs talk priorities might be the opposite, but I think it really depends on *which* conference vs *which* invited seminar.

      I also like the name you chose to comment under 🙂 I am a generally happy person, and am trying to stay that way by keeping myself sane!

  5. These are not meant to be prescriptions or a list of ‘to do’ items, but they are purely personal thoughts I have had during my career, and some ways that might help people establish priorities about which conferences they ‘really must’ attend in person. Hope it helps. If not, disregard.

    Someone once said to me when I was a new conference-goer that it is useful to pick on 2-3 ‘things’ from the conference that you can take back and use immediately (one of those things may be a useful contact, of course). This was extremely valuable advice – it meant I concentrated during presentations/posters on things that I could use. Other important things were noted, of course, and filed away – some to be used later and some just to remain good ideas.

    As you progress, you tend to specialise a bit more in your field, so some conferences you ‘once attended’, although interesting, may not give you these immediate buzzes and benefits. Thinking along these lines might be a good way to prioritise which ones you still want to attend; or even make you think about new ones you want to start attending (instead??? maybe???)

    It may also be mutually beneficial to be able to send off some more junior members of your research group, if you can and if they can, with instructions to come back with a report of three ‘useful things’ for your lab and give a mini-presentation on those when they return. That way, they get valuable networking opportunities, your name can still be dropped when necessary, and you can keep tabs on which of these confs are useful (or not) to keep on your list for the future.

    In general, I agree. Travel can prove to be too much of a good thing, if there is too much of it.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I agree about sending members of my lab group for some things, rather than going myself. I think this will work well later, but right now I have only one student, he’s coming from a different field, and is in a newly established lab and a smaller school. So for the near term, I want to go to the same conferences my grad students are attending at first, to help get their networks started. Once I have more grad students, with some age structure, the older students can help shepherd along the younger students.

      • yes it is a personal situation … but it does change as you progress along (or up??).

        Another thought – I also found that, after a conference, my brain was full and i was anxious to do some hands-on stuff as a bit of relief and wind-down. Might be worth considering this too, if possible, when timing comings and goings.

  6. I typically give myself a month a year away from my family (Spouse, two kids 6 and 2). This usually breaks down into three weeks in the field and one week for conference. As I’ve moved up in the ranks I’m seeing more invites seminars. I by in large really enjoy these for the reasons you outline in your post. I try to only do ones that require at most one night away, but that is challenging. To me the biggest impediment is definitely familial. I feel guilty leaving my wife to fend off the two kids by herself, and that keeps me coming back. If I was without children I would almost definitely travel more. Whether that would make me a better professor is a debate for many other blog posts….

  7. Thanks for this post! For me, travel is one of the reasons I love my job, and I get antsy if I don’t travel often enough. But now the I’m a new professor, I’m starting to feel the impacts of travel a bit more acutely. I have absolutely NO idea how to calculate my personal “limit” in terms of travel, and I’m already really bad at saying “no”!

    • I agree- travel can be pretty amazing. But just remember that all of those “yeses” are probably for things that won’t happen for a little while…and then they’ll take you by surprise when they come up. I said yes to a lot of things in the first 6 months of my job, which made the 2nd 6 months pretty terrible. The travel was great in some ways, but I was away a lot, which limited the things I had thought I would accomplish in those 2nd 6 months.

  8. My fieldwork occurs in the summer, which usually overlaps with most conferences, so I unfortunately have to trade off time at one vs. the other. Over the years though this has lead me to develop a strategy that works out alright – I alternate conference years with other things. On years that I attend conferences, I might hit several and on other years attend none. This has the benefit that you can accumulate results to present in one go and also re-use the material for different audiences (I’d avoid ones where I’m likely to see the same crowd). The drawback is that I’ve been out of sync with a couple of conferences that occur once every two years and it’s hard to work those in. But maybe some variant of this could work for you – i.e. dividing your time among those six types of travel so that you commit to one or two per year but not all.

  9. Travel exacerbates my health problems, so I’m trying to figure out ways to accomplish the networking, collaboration, and name recognition travel provides from the comfort of my own home. I think I need to invest more in blogging and tweeting under my real name, but it’s scary to develop professionally so publicly!

  10. I’m surprised that no one has suggested the potential of video/web conferencing, especially for invited seminars and working groups. I did my interview for my current position that way, speaking to my new department, and avoiding a three-day travel (flying from W. Oregon to North Central Florida is a full day in either direction) for a one-day visit. They eventually flew me down to visit, of course, but it strikes me that invited seminars could cost the hosting departments less and the speaker less in terms of travel toll if it were at least an option. I’ve also submitted grants where I’ve suggested advisory board meetings would be video conference only (they’re still pending 🙂 ) Has anyone else tried this?

  11. Pingback: Conferencing while female | Tenure, She Wrote

  12. Pingback: Women at the Conference Lectern: How organizing committees can do more to achieve gender parity | WildlifeSNPits

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